Capri, Sicily and beyond: Which of the hundreds of Italian islands is best for your next vacation?
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You’ve likely heard of (or maybe even visited) Italian islands like Sicily or Capri. But Italy has more than 450 islands, including both sea, lake, river and lagoon islands. Although not all of them are inhabited, many are sparsely populated and not too complicated to get to, making a socially distanced Italian island vacation a valid possibility at some point.
Whether it’s a popular island like Sicily, a lake island such as Monte Isola or a relatively unknown island such as Lipari, Ponza or Elba, consider jetting off to Italy for an island getaway.
1. Naples Bay Islands, Campanian Archipelago and the Phlegraean Islands
Some of Italy’s most accessible islands are reachable by a quick ferryboat from Naples: sophisticated Capri, the more local Ischia, quaint and colorful Procida, islet Nisida and the natural park of Vivara. Those wanting all the fancy glitz, glamour and tourist amenities (and prices to match) should head to Capri. For true Italian living, rent a scooter and explore Ischia’s beaches and towering Aragonese castle.
Procida is tiny, but worth a day trip to wander the vibrant streets and check out the Palazzo d’Avalos, a former castle-turned-prison (it’s now a historic attraction). From there, walk over the bridge to the island of Vivara, a natural reserve. Those with limited time in Naples can check out Nisida, a volcanic islet connected to the mainland by a stone bridge.
You’ve surely heard of the Mediterranean’s largest island: Sicily. Although it’s part of Italy, Sicily marches to the beat of its own Sicilian drum. The island is a fit for any traveler. Hikers will love trekking around Mount Etna and there are plenty of beaches around the island.
Wine-lovers can tour and taste Marsala and Nero D’ Avola, Sicily’s most famed varieties, and history buffs will immediately become enamored with the Baroque towns of the Val di Noto like Ragusa (which made our TPG U.K.’s most beautiful villages in Europe list), Modica, Noto and Scicli. And no visit to the island is complete without a stop in the hilltop, coastal city of Taormina.
Known as the “Black Pearl of the Mediterranean,” this small volcanic islet is actually closer to Africa than Sicily. Pantelleria’s rugged terrain and harsh climate of volcanic rocks, high winds and crashing waves don’t fit the typical white sand, palm tree island image most tourists dream about.
But there’s something intriguing about this far-flung landmass, which is known for growing capers, olives and Zibibbo grapes, which produce Passito dessert wine. Travelers wanting a little something different should plan to check it out.
4. Ponza and the Pontine Islands
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And that means escaping the city’s summer heat and heading to the Pontine Islands. The most popular is Ponza, and you can also visit Gavi, Palmarola, Santo Stefano, Ventotene and Zannone. From the San Felice Circeo port, you can reach Ponza in about an hour via hydrofoil. Ponza’s attractions range from colorful villages to rocky grottos, but the other, lesser-visited islands deserve recognition too.
Ventotene is the next busiest island and one of the best spots in Italy for diving and snorkeling. Palmarola is also a prime spot to view underwater life, while hikers may prefer a day trip to the uninhabited island of Santo Stefano to explore.
As the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Island, Sardinia has many faces. Porto Cervo and the Costa Smeralda are where you’ll find a more cosmopolitan yacht scene. Those wanting to social distance should head inland to hike and relax in the tranquil Gennargentu National Park.
You’ll find stunning beaches around the entire island, but an ideal one for beach hopping is the quintessentially Italian village of Alghero which is surrounded by medieval walls. From there, you can explore some of the best sandy spots in the northeast of the island such as Stintino and the Maddalena Archipelago.
6. The Maddalena Archipelago
Some of the best beaches in Italy — and in the world — are located on the Maddalena Archipelago, made up of seven main islands plus varying smaller islets off the northern coast of Sardinia. Arrive via a 20-minute boat ride from the Sardinian port of Palau. The largest of the islands, Maddalena, is home to a pristine natural reserve which is best explored by kayak or canoe.
It’s hard to pick a favorite beach (you may actually think you’re in the Caribbean when you see the fine white sand and crystal clear waters), but Cala Coticcio on the island of Caprera and the pinkish sand of the Spiaggia Rosa are two of TPG’s favorites.
7. The Tremiti Islands
San Domino, Cretaccio, San Nicola, Capraia and Pianosa are the Tremiti Islands. Situated off the Puglian coast in southern Italy, these islands have a truly remote feel — so much so they made our TPG U.K. list of far-flung and obscure destinations to add to your bucket list.
We recommend checking out the two inhabited islands: the beaches of San Dominio, and the Santa Maria Abbey and fortress of San Nicola. Visitors heading to the islands outside of the main tourist season (summer) may find the beach coves hidden among the cliffs and pine trees entirely deserted.
Venice isn’t just one island, it’s actually made up of almost 120 different mini-islands, many of which are man-made. Before, summer would have been a crowded and expensive time to visit a spot like Venice, which has struggled immensely with over-tourism in recent years.
Due to shutdowns from coronavirus though, the waters of the Grand Canal and other waterways are much cleaner and clearer at the moment. In the future, you may find the islands of Venice a much calmer place to visit. Don’t forget to check out some of Venice’s lesser-visited island spots like brightly hued buildings of Burano and the famed blown glass in Murano.
9. Pelagian Islands
The Pelagian Islands are even closer to Africa than Pantelleria. The remote archipelago has three main islands: Lampedusa, Linosa, and Lampione. The largest, Lampedusa, is known for the Spiaggia dei Conigli, a beach which made the TPG U.K. best beaches of 2019 list. At the moment, the beach likely has more loggerhead turtle guests than human visitors.
You can fly to Lampedusa’s small airport (LMP) from Rome or Milan. Linosa, known as the black island, has a few volcanoes. The tiniest island of Lampione is uninhabited except for a lone lighthouse, but its turquoise waters are incredible for diving and snorkeling.
10. Monte Isola
You may have heard of the popular Italian lakes Como and Garda, but Iseo, also located in northern Italy, is just as special. And in the middle of the lake you’ll spot Monte Isola, a vibrant green mountain with pastel, red-roofed Italian buildings lining the base.
The car-free island, which can be reached via a quick ferry ride from nearby lake towns such as Sulzano is best lapped by bike. Although parts of the circular path are uphill, the views of the lake and neighboring Swiss Italian villages are incredibly charming. And if you get hot, just hop into the lake for a swim.
11. Elba, Giglio and the Tuscan Islands
The seven islands of the Tuscan National Park are Capraia, Elba, Giannutri, Giglio, Gorgona, Montecristo and Pianosa. The most famous and the third-largest island in Italy is Elba. Arrival includes flying to Pisa, driving a little over an hour to the port of Piombino and then catching a one-hour ferry to Elba. As the islands form a marine National Park, the beaches (both sand and rocky) are perfect for sun-seekers and divers and snorkelers. Hikers will also enjoy trekking many paths through the hills on the islands and a visit to the 18th-century Palazzina dei Mulini, Napolean’s former residence, is a must. Giglio is best reached by ferry from the Port Santo Stefano, slightly further south than Piombino. You can spend the night or take a day trip, but make sure to visit the hilltop Giglio Castle and fortress.
Fans of “The Count of Montecristo” will understandably want to visit the exclusive island of Montecristo, but prepare for a long wait. You’ll need a permit to enter and you may end up on a waiting list, so make sure to get your permit in advance — only about 1,000 visitors are allowed per year. At any given time, there are probably more goats wandering the island than humans, as there are only a few residents who live there.
12. Aegadian Islands
Sicily’s Aegadian Islands are located off the coast of Trapani and reachable by ferry. The main islands are Favignana, Levanzo, Marettimo, plus the smaller islets of Formica and Maraone. Favignana is the largest and easiest to get to, perfect for honeymooners looking for an exotic getaway in the times of COVID when perhaps getting to the Caribbean or another far-flung destination may not be a possibility. Couples can enjoy the clear waters of serene beaches like Cala Rossa and attractions like Grotta degli Innamorati (Lover’s Grotto), as well as other intimate escapes around the island.
Levanzo’s rugged coastline may be best for walkers and those really wanting to relax as there aren’t too many shops or restaurants. And Marettimo, a car-free island, is even tinier and wilder, with hills, pine forests and hidden beaches.
13. Lipari and the Aeolian Islands
The island of Sicily has a number of nearby islands that are popular among Italians and relatively unknown to international tourists. The volcanic Aeolian archipelago consists of Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea. Lipari is the largest and most popular. Boating into its charming pastel-colored marina, with the Lipari castle perched on a cliff rising out of the water, feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Panarea (sometimes called the secret Santorini) is the smallest island, but perhaps the fanciest with a more exclusive, sophisticated feel.
Outdoor enthusiasts will love Vulcano, where you can hike craters and Stromboli, which features an active volcano. Salina is known for having a boutique hotel and a food and wine scene (sip a Malvasia in Malfa). You may recall seeing it in scenes from the 1994 film “Il Postino”. Those who really want to get off the beaten path should head to remote islands of Alicudi and Filicudi, which are the furthest from Sicily — you’ll get around by donkey in some spots.
Italian islands offer visitors so much: Italian charm on island time. From popular islands like Capri or Sicily to virtually unknown spots like Filicudi or San Nicola, Italy’s islands offer some of the best cuisine, beaches and Mediterranean magic in the country. So instead of a visit to Florence or Rome, consider an island vacation instead. If you love hiking, wine, food, exploring, diving or sunbathing, Italy’s got an island (or several) right for you.
Featured photo of Capri by agustavop/Getty
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